Interview With The Heads Behind “Whisper Darkly”  (10 Questions to…)
1st Electro Swing Musical Worldwide!

Did you know that the idea of creating the world’s first Electro Swing musical was conceived in the United States? On the 23rd of February, a concept album of songs for this musical called ‘Whisper Darkly’ was released. I thought it was the perfect opportunity for you to get to know more about the people who created this wonderful project. I am delighted to present you with an interview with Andrew Gerle and DJ Salisbury – they told me about the musical ‘Whisper Darkly’, their Broadway careers, why they became fascinated with Electro Swing and their collaboration on this project with PiSK, a well-known and respected music producer. To get an even better feel for the atmosphere of this musical, I recommend you to first play the album HERE and then read this incredibly interesting and inspiring interview!

01. LadyDot: Andrew, DJ, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Readers of our blog already know that there is a soundtrack to the first Electro Swing musical, Whisper Darkly, which you conceived together and for which you composed the songs. Please tell us how you two came together? Where did the idea to create such a musical come from?

DJ Salisbury: Andrew and I met on a performance project which featured new work from various composer-lyricists. Not long after, we were asked to team up on a television pitch project in which a new musical would be rehearsed, ‘reality TV’ style, by teen talents and the mothers who support their children’s passion for theatre. Though the project dd not move forward, we enjoyed our collaboration, so when I determined an immersive musical was to be my next exploration as a writer, I thought of Andrew as a perfect match for the material. Thankfully, he was interested in the idea and eagerly joined me in ‘discovering’ a musical that we knew from the outset would be genre-defying work.

Andrew Gerle: We were both fascinated by the new immersive theater being created recently, but had sometimes been frustrated by the narrative challenges it presents. Often, you enter into a beautiful, compelling physical world, but the story can sometimes get lost because of how difficult it can be to control the audience’s experience throughout the evening. DJ wondered if we could create a completely immersive world, where the audience feels like they’re an active part of the story and has the agency to make some choices, but where we can also control the experience enough to deliver characters we come to know and love and root for, with all the emotional payoffs that kind of deep narrative structure can bring. A speakeasy setting, where the audience is seated for most of the evening, but can eavesdrop on various playing areas around the club, seemed to be a great formula.

02. LadyDot: I’m very interested in the idea of combining classic jazz with Electro Swing. How did it happen that you became interested in this musical genre? Did you listen to Electro Swing before you thought it would be worthwhile to create such a musical? Or maybe songs or albums by some Electro Swing artist inspired you a bit?

Andrew Gerle: I was already a fan of Electro Swing when DJ brought me the project, which he didn’t know – I was listening to it, playing it at all my parties, I loved the combination of the jazz and Vaudeville musical vocabulary with the drive and excitement of EDM beats. I didn’t know how to write for it, but I thought it would be the perfect genre for this project. It would give the flavor of the period, without feeling completely pastiche.

DJ Salisbury: I had also become an Electro Swing fan, thanks to YouTube! One the goals of Whisper Darkly was to ‘drop people into’ the world of a 1928 Manhattan speakeasy, and Electro Swing seemed the best musical style to ‘teleport’ people to another era AND to let them groove to music more akin to that which people choose to listen/dance to in 2024.

Andrew Gerle: Whenever I write music for a show set in a specific time period, I never want to write music that feels like it literally could have been written during that time, I want to give it a new spin of some kind. Electro Swing gives me that new spin, and also gives our audience the feeling that audiences would’ve had hearing jazz in 1928 – a fresh, new, contemporary sound, instead of something antique. We want people to feel like they’ve come to the hottest club in both 1928 and 2028, and the music can’t sound like their great-grandmother’s.

03. LadyDot: I know that you have also had your professional experience on Broadway. Can you say a bit more about that?

Andrew Gerle: I’ve been a New York musical director and orchestrator for over 25 years, with the joy of working with some of the top Broadway and Golden Age movie musical stars as pianist and conductor. I’ve also played in numerous Broadway pits (shows like West Side Story, Newsies, Ragtime, and Matilda), which is always a magical experience. But Broadway is only the tip of American theatre – I’ve had the honor of conducting and working at major regional theaters around the country, and touring both in the US and to Taiwan, Russia, and the Middle East.

DJ Salisbury: After university, I was a performer in national touring shows and in one Broadway show (The Wizard of Oz). I also had the great good fortune to be a dance assistant in the process of creating the Broadway show The Will Rogers Follies, directed by the great Tommy Tune. I believe working as a performer with terrific directors and choreographers taught me a tremendous amount about the crafts of direction and choreography. Eventually, I stopped performing to pursue a career in direction and choreography. Writing musicals had been something I’d started in college. I stood as artistic director for a writers group (The Musical Writers Playground) in New York for five years. For me, direction, choreography, and writing are all aspects of that thing I love to do: tell stories.

04. LadyDot: Okay, let’s go back to the topic of the musical please. I know it perfectly well, but please introduce our readers to what Whisper Darkly is about? What times is the plot set in?

DJ Salisbury: Whisper Darkly is about the larger-than-life characters who inhabit the Hush Club, Manhattan’s most notorious speakeasy, in 1928. We follow the story of three women: the club’s proprietress, Topeka McShane; her niece Evie, fresh off the bus from her small Midwestern home; and Topeka’s longtime friend, international singing star Wysandria Cole Davis. The audience become the patrons of the Hush Club, and are witness to both the dazzling floorshow and the backstage interactions of the staff, which expose the cracks in the foundation of their personal relationships. Near the end of the show, a police raid separates the audience into separate spaces where they are tasked to solve ‘cooperative puzzles’ in order to protect the Hush Club from closing. Once the audience has been reunited, Topeka reveals secrets that will change both Evie’s and Wysandria’s lives… while also saving the club.

Andrew Gerle: It was an exciting challenge to write the score, because almost every song is performed as part of the Hush Club’s floor show. In most traditional musicals, all or most of the songs are sung by characters just going about their lives, who don’t “know” they’re singing. Our characters all know they’re singing, as the Hush Club performers entertaining the club’s audience. So the challenge was to write songs that could function as show-stopping club numbers that would’ve been appropriate for a speakeasy floor show, while at the same time reflecting some element of the character or the backstage story. For example, Deuce’s big song “The Top Dog Strut” is a fun tap number about doing whatever it takes to get ahead, and by the end of the show we discover that’s exactly what Deuce does. “Run in the Rain” is Topeka’s tour-de-force solo, but it also introduces us to her character’s philosophy of life.

05. LadyDot: It’s very interesting, because you invited the well-known and respected Electro Swing producer Roberto Costa (PiSK), to co-create this project. How did you manage to combine? How do you recall this collaboration? It’s really great that passion for music can bring people from two different continents together!

Andrew Gerle: Our collaboration with Roberto has been a joy from start to finish. We came across his name and his group, Swingrowers, when we were first listening to bands as inspiration for the sound of Whisper Darkly. We reached out to him, and somehow the email didn’t get through, so we met with some other Electro Swing producers, but none of them were quite right for the project. We were looking for someone who would understand that we wanted the Electro Swing style and sonic vocabulary, but that Musical Theater songs have a lot of additional „responsibilities” – establishing character (each character’s songs should have a different sound), painting a dramatic or psychological picture, and allowing for lyrics and song structures that can be complicated and tell a lot of story. We reached out again to Roberto – a year later! – and this time the email got through and he wrote back right away. I showed him the songs I had written, with the very rudimentary beats I was able to create on my own, and he could immediately see how the two genres could be brought together to create something new. He knew it would be a challenge, but he welcomed it and was excited to see where the collaboration would take us, and the music!

06. LadyDot: PiSK, now I have a question for you. How did you feel when Andrew and DJ wrote to you about collaborating? Did you know immediately that the idea of an electro swing musical was a sure success? Was the idea of arranging songs in an electro swing style spontaneous, or did it take you days or even months to realise your vision?

PiSK: I remember they tried to contact me a few times, first in 2015 through Swingrowers’ mail. At that time I was always on tour and very busy with my band. Before they sent me their drafts in 2020, I initially thought it might be a joke or an uninteresting collaboration request, as I receive numerous requests of collaboration every year. However, during the COVID period I had more free time and I decided to give them a chance.
I vividly remember being on vacation in Favignana Island in April 2021, in Sicily, seeking inspiration away from the lockdown of my city. So I asked them to arrange a call together, it was great! The idea of working on a completely different concept of making music intrigued me, and upon hearing their drafts, I felt something genuinely interesting. I saw an opportunity to explore something new with professionals from the other side of the world.
After that initial call, we started working on the first track in a matter of months, and it was an amazing experience. The journey has been quite long; it’s almost three years now. Andrew visited my studio several times for full-time week-long sessions. Recording my musicians from Palermo added another layer to the project. Exploring this new world was a great experience for me, and I want to express my gratitude to Andrew and DJ for involving me in this project. I hope to see the full show soon in theaters around the world!

07. LadyDot: The artists who phenomenally performed the songs on the Whisper Darkly album, in my opinion, perfectly captured the mood of the 1920s. How did you find the right vocalists for the project? Did you use your many contacts for this, or did you organise a casting call?

DJ Salisbury: Casting the singers was a big task. It was important to Andrew and me that we find the appropriate vocal colors in singers of superb acting ability in order to have the show’s characters’ personalities be front and center on the album. Fortunately, we have both been in the New York theatre industry for some time and have connections to a great many people with tremendous talent.

Andrew Gerle: It was a combination of people we knew and had already worked with, and people we found by watching a lot of videos of the best singers in New York and then just reaching out and asking them! We ended up with a dream cast of artists who, as you say, know how to deliver a classic jazz/musical theater song and sound, but still feel completely contemporary, which is rare. Our fantastic Topeka McShane, Aléna Watters, had done a workshop production of the show with us and already knew the character (and the songs) inside-out, and Victoria Huston-Elem and Khalifa White had also done a reading in New York. DJ and I had both worked with Broadway and TV actor Claybourne Elder, so we dropped him a line to play Deuce.

DJ Salisbury: For Evie, we went on a search for someone who might be considered a ‘rising star’ in the Broadway realm. Keri René Fuller is exactly that and exactly right for Evie. And one of the actors who portrayed Tina Turner in the Broadway musical Tina, Kayla Davion, was suggested to us by a friend. Kayla is simply perfect in her vocal performance as Wysandria. It takes phenomenal actors to fully inhabit a character they’ve never played in a studio setting, with all the depth and nuance they normally would have had weeks or months of rehearsal and performance time to explore. Keri René and Kayla bring Evie and Wysandria to vivid and very personal life, it’s incredible to hear.

Andrew Gerle: I had worked with the brilliant two-time Tony Award nominee Brad Oscar at Sweeney Todd in NYC, and he very happily was available. Alistair Brammer, a West End star, had been in a reading I had conducted, and I was blown away by his talent, so he came on board to play Brady, the undercover cop (he actually recorded his part from Glasgow!). I hadn’t ever met Broadway stars Howard McGillin (also a two-time Tony nominee and the world’s longest-running Phantom of the Opera) and Alli Mauzey (I’d been a long-time fan – her Glinda in Wicked will forever be my favorite), but we contacted them through friends and they were happy to be a part of it.

DJ Salisbury: Every other singer-actor was cast by phone calls and emails…no audition was held.

Andrew Gerle: That’s how a lot of projects get assembled in New York!

08. LadyDot: Let’s focus for a moment on the musical setting, which is absolutely perfect in every respect. The album features songs of varying tempos – there are plenty of energetic, danceable pieces (for example, ‘We Make the Night’), as well as catchy ballads (‘Love in the Shadows’) and even duet songs (‘Things I Didn’t Know’). Which of the tracks was the most difficult for you to finish? Or did you compose a song in the meantime and replace another track that was ultimately intended to be on the album?

Andrew Gerle: We had had the great opportunity to have workshopped the show in Orlando about six months before we started recording, so the score was in pretty final shape. However, one song that was in that workshop did get cut, and was replaced by „Who’s Evie Now?”, which is now one of our favorites, a real Electro Swing character number for Evie. I’m very proud of that song because it deeply combines what I think of as the best of Electro Swing and Musical Theater – a catchy tune, an infectious beat that’s great to dance to, plus the detailed story of a character who’s struggling to overcome difficult personal problems. You learn a lot about Evie (it’s her first song of the show), and I think you come to really root for her and her journey by the time it’s done. You also mentioned „Things I Didn’t Know” – this was a very challenging song that also underwent some changes. It’s a „double duet”, meaning there are two couples that make up a quartet. The first couple sings their song („Things I Didn’t Know”), then the second couple sings a totally different song („Keep Your Secrets”), then we discover that the two songs go on top of each other and can be sung at the same time (a difficult but really fun structure to compose!). We had the song in our workshop, but what I realized going into the studio is that although it was amusing, what’s even more fun is if you speed the whole thing up to a manic tempo when the two couples are singing together! It ended up being a crazy song to mix, to ensure that all four voices are clearly understandable even when everyone’s singing at the same time, but it really cooks now in I think a unique way.

09. LadyDot: Whisper Darkly is an incredibly complex project that involved a whole host of vocalists, musicians and producers from all over the world. As I can guess, it’s not easy to organise the work on such an extensive project. What complications or challenges did you encounter along the way to achieving the final result?

Andrew Gerle: It was extremely complicated and time-consuming. We had 15 actors and 12 musicians who recorded for us, and only twice was anyone ever in the studio at the same time. We recorded mostly in my studio in New York, but because of scheduling issues, the singers came in one at a time over the course of many months, and the same with the musicians. As I said earlier, Alistair Brammer lives in Glasgow, so he recorded there (I Zoomed in to listen and give feedback). And of course, Roberto lives in Palermo! We tried to do a little work on WhatsApp, but we quickly learned that’s impossible, so I traveled three times to Sicily to work with him in his studio, and to record with some fantastic Italian jazz musicians. That was the only way to really collaborate, to be in the studio together and experiment with sounds and beats. The mixing process was also very challenging – I was very conscious of trying to create a sound that honored my work as a musical theater composer, making sure the lyrics and voices were clear, that all the wonderful work by our jazz musicians was heard, but also to deliver an album that honored its Electro Swing roots as well. Striking the right balance between driving beat and clear timbres, between danceable tunes and compelling story-telling took many months of finessing. Turns out, combining two different musical genres to create a new hybrid form is a big challenge, but I think in the end we found exactly the right balance.

DJ Salisbury: We also want to mention Santiago Deluchi – Santi was a dancer-singer in a large Christmas show that I co-created and directed in Bogotá, Colombia. It was after I came to know his ability as a brilliant tap dancer that I learned he was also a successful music producer and arranger…a Latin Grammy winner! When we were doing the Whisper Darkly workshop and prior to our relationship with Roberto, Santi helped us craft early electro-swing arrangements of “We Make the Night” and “Run in the Rain.” More recently, he did an EDM remix of “Too Much Fun Fun.”

Andrew Gerle: An album created on three continents – I think that really represents the global appeal of Electro Swing!

10. LadyDot: Many of us are certainly looking forward to the theatrical premiere of the musical! Do you already have a planned date to stage the musical? I hope it will take place not only in the United States, but also in Europe!

Andrew Gerle: Our hope for the album is that we can bring together fans from the Electro Swing and Musical Theater worlds, and that their response will generate interest in creating a real live Whisper Darkly.

DJ Salisbury: We already have significant interest in London to launch the first production there, we’re just looking for a producer to come forward and take us across the finish line. We feel that the story of these three women, living their lives to the fullest and on their own terms in a world that’s constantly telling them „no”, is one a lot of people will respond to in today’s challenging times.

Andrew Gerle: What’s fun and unique about the show from a business perspective is that once you’ve created the speakeasy for the performances of Whisper Darkly, you then have a real-life working nightclub, which can be used as such before and after Whisper Darkly performances, or on nights when the show is not running, to host concerts and other acts. We’d love to see multiple versions of the Hush Club in cities all over the world, each a little different, each host not only to the characters and music we’ve created, but to artists of all kinds in a new kind of production model that feels as much about the present-day city it’s in as the story we’re telling set in 1928 Manhattan.

DJ Salisbury: Hopefully, this album will be the first step on the way to a full production, and everyone will be able to meet these characters and hear these songs in person very soon!

Interview by LadyDot; Date: 2024-02-26


Electro Swing Radio